The title of this post is borrowed from that of a book by the late Henry M. Morris. He, and other (mainly North American) apologists have argued for a literal reading of the early chapters of Genesis as a scientific account of origins, and for this to be taught in schools alongside, or even in place of, evolutionary theory.
It is certainly true that Darwinism has deeply affected many aspects of life, not only in science but also in philosophy, literature and politics.
Naturalists such as Buffon, Cuvier and Lamarck wrestled with the problem of the origin and development of living things, particularly in the light of the fossil record. Most accepted as an axiom the fixity of species, although this was less on biblical and more on Aristotelian grounds. The idea of transformism of species was regarded with deep suspicion.
Charles Darwin (1809-82) began medical training at Edinburgh, transferred to Cambridge with a view the entering the Anglican ministry, before a friendship with J.S. Henshaw, Professor of Botany, led to accept the offer of a two-year voyage round the world on the H.M.S. Beagle. In the event, the voyage lasted nearly five years, and was described by Darwin as ‘by far the greatest event of my life.’
Darwin was led to ask questions such as, why each of the Galapagos Islands have its own species of tortoices, mocking-brids, and finches? Had each been created just for one island? The thought cross his mind that ‘from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.’ Darwin was also impressed by the fossils he saw. Were these long-extinct species casualties of the flood (as some thought)?
By 1837 he started his first note-book on ‘Transmutation of Species.’ The following year, he read the Essay on the Principle of Population, by Robert Malthus. In this book, the author painted a grim picture of future population explosion: in a world in which the population grew geometrically, but food supplies only increased arithmetically, struggle for existence was inevitable. It struck Darwin that ‘under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed.’
At the core of Darwin’s theory was the idea that variations naturally occur with the offspring of a given species, and that those variations that give an advantage will tend to be passed on, leading to ‘the survival of the fittest’. In time, the accumulated changes could give rise to new species.
This idea of the transmutation of species was perhaps the most controversial aspect of Darwin’s theory at the time, along with the immensely long time required for evolution to occur. However, geological investigations during the first half of the 19th century had already promoted acceptance of the view that the earth was many thousands, or even millions, of years old.
Not surprisingly, given the complexity of the issues, Christian responses to Darwinism were varied.
The Interpretation of Genesis
On the interpretation of Genesis, many Christians rejected Darwinism simply because it was incompatible with a literal reading of Genesis 1-3, with its four-day period for the whole of organic creation, a specific order of events, a creation of man from the dust, and a separate creation of woman. Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, pronounced that ‘the principle of natural selection is absolutely incompatible with the word of God.’ Charles Perry, Bishop of Melbourne, asserted that Darwin and others were out ‘to produce in their readers a disbelief of the Bible’. Some appealed to 1 Corinthians 15:39 – ‘All flesh is not the same flesh’.
It is noteworthy, however, that the level of opposition amongst evangelicals – notwithstanding their commitment to the authority of the Bible – was rather low. It is true that T.R. Birks (co-founder of the Evangelical Alliance) and some others opposed evolution on biblical grounds. The Princeton theologian Charles Hodge expressed some doubts, questioning that man created in the image of God could be merely a developed ape. But Hodge accepted that ‘science has in many things taught the Church how to understand the Scripture’, and accepted that the days of Genes 1 may represent far longer periods than 24 hours. Generally, the Princeton theologians accepted evolution. Concerted opposition to Darwinism did not come about until the rise of fundamentalism in the 1920s.
For the comparative silence from evangelicals there must surely be an explanation. Indeed there is, and it is a simple one. So far as literal interpretation of Genesis was concerned, Darwin raised no new issues of principle. The evolution controversy promised to be a re-run of the arguments over the age of the earth and the demise of ‘flood geology’. It was not that they failed to take Scripture properly into account. Because they took it so seriously they declined to saddle it with arbitrary interpretations that flew in the face of empirical evidence. And, precisely because they stood in the direct line of Augustine, Calvin, Boyle and the rest they accepted a scriptural mandate to do science and were not prepared to read a contradictory message in Genesis and in geology or biology. Certainly there were aspects of ‘evolution’ with which they were not happy, but this was not usually one of them.
Moreover, lessons had been learned from the Galileo affair, not least of which was that in Scripture the Holy Spirit might ‘accommodate’ himself to the limitations of human understanding and that the Bible was not a scientific text-book.
It should be understood that the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species occurred at a time when the so-called ‘Higher Criticism’ was beginning to cause general concern amongst Christians (Essays and Reviews, promoting the new approach to biblical studies, was published in 1860). This was, then, a time of unease amongst those who thought that the Bible was coming under attack from various quarters.
Elimination of purpose in nature
Prior to Darwin, natural theology had recognised design and purpose everywhere. But now, a giraffe’s neck was not long because a wise Maker intended it to be so, but because it provided an evolutionary advantage. Huxley likened variations in nature to the pellets from a shotgun, some of which happen to hit the target.
For many, this seemed as counter-intuitive as the idea of a spherical earth. For Christians, it seemed to leave no room for a God of plan and purpose. But even for Darwin himself, the concept of a world without design was troubling:-
I am conscious that I am in an utterly hopeless muddle. I cannot think that the world, as we see it, is the result of chance; and yet I cannot look at each separate thing as the result of Design.
Then there were those such as the American botanist Asa Gray, who embraced Darwinism ‘for the paradoxical reason that apparent waste in nature could now be seen as part of a larger scheme of Design.’
Man in Society
Political connections with Darwinism have been various, ranging from the right-wing politics of many antt-evolution crusaders in the US, to the warm reception give to it by Marx, to the Social Darwinism of Spencer.
What is truly remarkable is that versions of evolution have been used in arguments by Left and Right, from Marx to Hitler. As Bernard Shaw observed, Darwin ‘had the luck to please everybody who had an axe to grind.’
Charles Lyell was unable fully to support Darwin’s theory, being unable to square his view of the status and dignity of man with an animal ancestry. It was not that it was a new idea to put man on a par with animals – this was common in Enlightenment thinking. It was, likely that Lyell was reacting to a specific Darwinian implication of this, namely the inevitability of competition and ‘the survival of the fittest’.
In the case of Adam Sedgwick, his criticism was based on Darwinism’s elevation of the material over the moral. The letter, in Sedgwick’s view, were relegated to the status of epiphenomena, or by-products, of nature. Man is qualitatively different from the apes in his moral capacity.
The Elimination of God
Darwin became pretty much a materialist, although he took care not to reveal this too plainly, partly (perhaps) out of consideration for his wife’s religious views. What references there are in his writings to ‘God’ or a ‘Creator’ do not, and are not intended to, demonstrate a secure faith. However, he was nothing if not inconsistent in this regard, and he is perhaps best described as ‘a muddled theist’. It is clear that he maintained cordial relationships with committed Christians, gave financial support for missions, and associated in published works with men like Gray and Kingsley. There is a story of his late conversion, but the facts of this cannot now be established.
Whatever we make of Darwin’s personal beliefs, some Christian theologians came to the view the Darwinism systematically eliminated God from the world. Charles Hodge wrote of Darwinism,
This is atheism to all intents and purposes, because it leaves the soul…entirely without God, without a Father, Helper, or Ruler.
Whether it does in fact do so will need to be examined further.
Various scientific objections were raised to Darwinism, not least of which was the circular reasoning implied in the notion of the ‘survival of the fittest’ (i.e. ‘the survival of those who survive’). Some were concerned about the implication that, within Darwinism, natural causes were the only kinds of causes.
Writers such as clergyman F.O. Morris, physician C.R. Bree, geologist J.W. Dawson, and lawyer C.T. Curtis opposed Darwinism from a Christian perspective. However, they did not use a conflict with Genesis as the chief ground of their objections, but they rather argued on the basis of scientific methodology.
Darwin was dealing with probabilities rather than scientific proof. As Adam Sedwick wrote to Darwin on receipt of The Origin in 1859,
Many of your wide conclusions are based upon assumptions which can neither be proved nor disproved, why then express them in the language and arrangement of philosophical induction?
It is impossible to say with certainty to what extent scientific arguments against Darwinism ‘comprised merely rhetorical arguments to cover up a theological objection’. But the comment of John Dewey in 1909 is pertinent:-
Although the ideas that rose up like armed men against Darwinism owed their intensity to religious associations, their origin and meaning are to be sought in science and philosophy, not in religion.
Bridge Over Troubled Waters
Attempts at Synthesis
Despite religious and scientific criticisms of Darwinism, it would be wrong to represent the situation as one of unremitting conflict. Various attempts at sythesis were made. One approach was to Christianise Darwinism by recognising, as Darwin himself did not, the hand of God at work in natural selection. The American Congregationalist minister G.F. Wright was one who held orthodox theological views, and said,
If only evolutionists would incorporate into their system the sweetness of the Calvinistic doctrine of Divine Sovereignty, the church would make no objection to their speculations.
Other Christian thinkers accepted evolution, but not on Darwin’s terms. Some reverted to Lamarckian views, and a number were liberal rather than orthodox in their theology (these included Frederick Temple, George Henslow, George Mivart, Henry Ward Beecher and George Matheson).
Charles Raven expresses surprise that Christians have had as much trouble as they have had with evolutionary theory:-
It is one of the ironies of history that Christendmon which by its own Scriptures was committed to belief in an ever-working God (e.g. John 5:17), in a progressive revelation still incomplete (John 16:13), in suffering as the characteristic of the creature (Romans 8:18-23), and the means to perfection (Hebrews 2:10), and in fuller life as the divine purpose (John 10:10) should have so signally failed to maintain this belief when faced with the challenge of Darwinism.
Henry Drummond (1851-97) attempted a synthesis of Christian and evolutionary thought, maintaining that the same laws which govern biological life also govern spiritual life. Thus, laws of biogenesis, degeneration, growth, death (and even parasitism!) operate in both spheres. He regarded Evolution and Christianity as one:-
What is Evolution? A method of creation. What is its object? To make more perfect living beings. What is Christianity? A method of creation. What is its object? to make more perfect living beings. Through what does Evolution work? Through Love. Through what does Christianity work? Through Love. Evolution and Christianity have the same Author, the same end, the same spirit. There is no rivalry between these processes. Christianity struck into the Evolutionary process with no noise or shock; it upset nothing at all that had been done; it took all the natural foundations precisely as it found them; it adopted Man’s body, mind, and soul at the exact level where Organic Evolution was at work upon them; it carried on the building by slow and gradual modifications; and, through processes governed by rational laws, it put the finishing touches to the Ascent of Man.
It could be said that as Herbert Spencer applied the principles of Darwinism to society, so Drummond applied them to the spiritual world. Although regarded as an evangelical, and a close associate of D.L. Moody, his theological orthodoxy was questioned, and he was charged (although eventually acquitted) of heresy before the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland.
Charles Kingsley (1819-75) was another who attempted a synthesis of evolutionary and Christian thought. Unlike Drummond, he was not dispositionally inclined towards ‘personal religion’, although is some respects his theology was more biblical, more orthodox, and more God-centred. Kingsley did not think that evolution and Scripture were at odds with one another, the latter teaching that God created, but not how. He wrote,
We knew of old that God was so wise that He could amke all things; but behold, He is so much wiser than even that, that He can make all things make themselves.
Rather distinguish between physical causes and divine causes, Kingsley argued that God could just as easily create forms capable of development as he could intervene by special creation each time a new species was required. What might have been seen as a long chapter of accidents Kingsley saw as really a chapter of special providences by One of infinite greatness, wisdom and care. The choice was between the ‘absolute empire of accident’ and ‘a living, immanent, ever-working God.’
Others choose to suspend judgment, noting, perhaps, that Darwinism was ‘only a theory’. ‘The Declaration of Students of the Natural and Physical Sciences’, 1864/5, with 717 signatories, 66 of whom were Fellows of the Royal Society, referred to God’s two books – the book of science and the book of Scripture – declaring that they cannot contradict one another, even though they may appear to do so. In the face of any apparent disharmony,
leave the two side by side until it shall please God to allow us to see the manner in which they may be reconciled; and, instead of insisting upon the seeming differences between Science and the Scriptures, it would be as well to rest in faith upon the ponts in which they agree.
Physical scientists such as Faraday, Maxwell, Stokes and Rayleigh also tended to keep their counsel, even if privately they nurtured doubts about evolutionary theory.
C.H. Spurgeon was one of the church leaders who ministered at the height of the controversy. He was no theological liberal, and strenuously opposed the ‘down-grade’ that he observed in the Baptist denomination. Although critical of some aspects of Darwinian philosophy (such as its denial of the special status given to man in Scripture), his attitude towards evolution generally was one of scepticism rather than condemnation. Spurgeon had a high regard for science and the study of nature, but when he came to preach on the early chapters of Genesis, he declared that ‘our business is moral and spiritual rather than scientific’. He quoted with approval the words of T. de Witt Talmage:
Try your scientific comfort on those parents who have lost their only child. You come in, and you talk to those parents about ‘selection’, and about the ‘survival of the fittest’…Try that consolation…The American people are finding out that worldly philosophy and hunman science as a consolation in time of bereavement are an illimitable, outrageous, unmitigated, and appalling humbug.
For Spurgeon, it was a matter of priorities:-
Some like to talk of Darwin and Tyndall and Huxley in their sermons; it gives a show of learning. But I like to mention Paul and Peter and Jesus Christ.
Based on Colin Russell, Cross-Currents: Interactions between science and faith, 141-174.